Tuesday, 29 July 2014
Clive Exton (1930-2007) was the principal screenwriter for most of the original Poirot series. He also oversaw a number of scripts as a script consultant. For an overview of his career, see this obituary in The Telegraph. Other notable works, much in the same vein as Poirot, include Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993), the P. G. Wodehouse stories, with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie), and Rosemary and Thyme (2003-2006), a television series about two female gardening detectives. Exton wrote all 23 episodes of Jeeves and Wooster at the same time as he was doing Poirot. They are similar, in some ways. Poirot is set in the 1930s, Jeeves and Wooster in the 1920s. Both sets of adaptations have a lot of humour in them, and they both centre on dynamic duos. You could even argue that Rosemary & Thyme follows the same pattern. In any case, that is certainly a very Christie-esque series. However, I should point out that Exton's work as a screenwriter was much broader than just gentle Sunday night television; the obituary in The Guardian focuses on 'his highly individual mixture of black comedy and oblique social criticism'.
Writing about Poirot and Jeeves and Wooster, The Telegraph states in the obituary that 'both adaptations reflected his love of precision in language and his understanding of how people express themselves, as well as his ability to spin out and knit together plot lines from often scanty material'.That is certainly true of his Poirot adaptations, on more than one occasion.
In total, Exton wrote 20 scripts for Poirot (1989-2001). I won't go into detail about every adaptation (have a look at my episode-by-episode posts for that), but I would like to give an overview of his adaptations, and comment on a few of them.
For Series One, he adapted 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook', 'Murder in the Mews', 'The Adventure of Johnny Waverley', 'Problem at Sea', 'The Incredible Theft' and 'The Dream'. Overall, the adaptations stay impressively close to their source material. This was before the screenwriters felt the need to add lengthy chase scenes or make changes to murderers, motives and plot essentials. Exton does, however, initiate a significant deviation from Christie by introducing the Poirot 'family'; Hastings, Japp and Miss Lemon appear in nearly every episode until Series Eight. He also expands their back stories, with an added car interest for Hastings, and eventually an interest in the occult for Miss Lemon. In the 2007 Super Sleuths documentary, Exton explains: 'I do think, for a television series, you need a basic family unit, whether it's a family or not; people who interact with each other. Also, it's very useful, for a not very clever writer like me, to have somebody for Poirot to confide in.'
Personally, I think Exton made the right decision. ITV intended Poirot to become its Sunday night drama 'flagship'. To make people tune in week after week, there had to be something more than just Christie's murder plots to make the nation (and later the world) tune in. His approach to the main cast, 'the big four', also seemed in tune with the short stories on which the early adaptations were based. Christie's short stories are generally much lighter than her novels. Personally, I'm also convinced that Exton and the Poirot team, like Christie, were inspired by the successful Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, in which the detective is surrounded by Watson, Mrs Hudson and Inspector Lestrade.
For Series Two, Exton did Peril at End House, 'The Veiled Lady', 'The Cornish Mystery', 'Double Sin', 'The Kidnapped Prime Minister' and 'The Adventure of the Western Star'. After the success of the first series, the Poirot team had decided to make some changes. Most importantly, Suchet wanted to make Poirot more human. He explains the process: 'Clive Exton's script certainly helped me. For he too wanted a little more humour in the new series, to make Poirot a bit more moving. It was an excellent idea, even if I sometimes had to restrain him from going too far towards making the little Belgian a comic character, for that certainly was not the Poirot I knew and wanted to portray. But at the same time, Clive also brightened both Hastings and Japp, making them a little less stiff. All this helped to make the films feel more affectionate towards Poirot than some of the first series. (Poirot and Me 2013 p. 77). I suppose nearly all of the above episodes had more humour in them, from Poirot in disguise to the Belgian film star Marie Marvelle. Generally speaking, Exton's scripts are faithful, but some of the additions (or time slot filler) doesn't always work. Suchet admits: 'I'm afraid I was never really happy with Double Sin, The Adventure of the Cheap Flat and The Adventure of the Western Star. They all seemed a little flat to me, a little too one-dimensional compared to the others.' (p. 84-85). However, Exton's adaptation of Peril at End House works particularly well, and I notice that it has a tendency to pop up on people's lists of their favourite episodes.
For Series Three, Exton adapted only two episodes; The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby' (co-written with Anthony Horowitz). The Styles adaptation is near-perfect, with very understandable changes and a genuine respect for the source material. The same could (almost) be said of 'The Theft of the Royal Ruby', but here we have another of those slightly annoying chase scenes added.
The two novel adaptations that followed for Series Four are interesting, in more ways than one. Both mark a significant shift towards darker material and darker adaptations that would eventually take over from the cosy family unit. The ABC Murders is a particularly successful adaptation (though, again, with an added chase scene at the denouement); Suchet frequently refers to it as his personal favourite. The serial killer plot, and particularly the way Exton adapts it to the screen, significantly darkens the series. The second novel, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, opens with a particularly brutal murder scene and has an eerier atmosphere throughout. For those who claim Exton was stuck in his family unit, then, his Series Four adaptations should prove essential viewing. Likewise for those who claim the shift towards darkness in Series Nine was sudden.
For Series Five, Exton adapted 'The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb' and 'The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman'. Both adaptations work, particularly the first, but I think that is more due to its setting than its plot. The second is, yet again, weakened by a lengthy chase scene. Why Exton insisted on adding these scenes I will never understand. Obviously, they are perfect padding to slight stories, but they do seem more and more as an 'easy' way out. He makes up for this in his adaptation for Series Six, though. Hercule Poirot's Christmas is classic Christie, and the adaptation is generally quite successful.
When Poirot returned after its four-year hiatus for Series Seven, Exton seemed to have lost his way somewhat. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has some interesting points in its favour (for instance, I'm very fond of the opening lines from Poirot on the brutality of humanity), but the denouement doesn't work at all, and I'm not convinced the voice-over was the best way to keep Christie's ingenious twist. Suchet says of the episode: 'I felt it lacked something. I am not sure exactly why; perhaps it had something to do with my expectations being too high. The denouement was exciting and unexpected - it should have been marvellous, but somehow, there was something missing.' (Poirot and Me p. 187). Unfortunately, Murder in Mesopotamia for Series Eight is another questionable endeavour. The addition of Hastings feels contrived, and the story itself seems as though it has run out of steam.
In summation, then, how could I describe Exton's legacy? Despite his tendency to use chase scenes as padding, and his sometimes contrived attempts at keeping 'the unit', I remain convinced he was the right man for the job when the series began. For one, he was a Christie fan, and handled her most 'classic' stories with great care. More importantly, to establish the family unit was an ingenious move; I'm sure that helped establish Agatha Christie's Poirot as the phenomenon it is today (Hastings, Miss Lemon and Japp have almost become cult figures!).
Monday, 28 July 2014
"Some people tend to see Poirot as one- or two-dimensional, but those who do are almost always the ones who have never read the books. If you do read them, you realise at once that there are certainly three dimensions to his character. And every time I played him, I tried to bring those extra elements of Poirot's character to the surface, reflecting the different dimensions revealed in Dame Agatha's own stories about him." (David Suchet, Poirot and Me p. 86, 2013)It is a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow a famous first sentence) that David Suchet spent years perfecting his performance as Hercule Poirot. He read all the stories and compiled a character dossier, a copy of which was included in his memoir Poirot and Me (2013). He has repeatedly stated that he aimed to stay true to the character as Christie wrote him. For me, Suchet fully managed to inhabit that character, and I find it impossible to pick up a Poirot story and not envisage his Poirot and hear his voice.
Under the headline "The Complete Poirot", I will examine, in the coming weeks and months, the development of our all-time favourite main character in Christie's stories, and discuss passages or characteristics that are (a) included in Suchet's dossier, or (b) present in the television adaptations themselves. The books will be discussed in chronological order (based on this Wikipedia list), rather than in publication order (although they largely overlap).
Let's begin with Poirot's very first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920. Page references are from the HarperCollins collection The Complete Battles of Hastings, Volume I, published in 2003.
"I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere matter of method. [...] He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever." (pp. 10-11)
"Poirot was an extraordinary-looking man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man, who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police force. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day." (p. 20)These are the first descriptions of Poirot and his appearance in any of Christie's books, courtesy of Arthur Hastings. It seems unnecessary to list the similarities between Poirot and Suchet's portrayal on this point, but I'll do it briefly. There is no denying that Poirot is 'a great dandy', certainly from an English point of view. I suppose that would go under note 22 on Suchet's list: 'Very particular about his appearance', as well as note 33: 'His appearance (including hair) is always immaculate. His nails groomed and shined.' According to the IMdB, Suchet's height is 5' 7'', which is very close to Poirot's 5' 4''. He has an egg-shaped head (enhanced in the particular adaptation of this story, I notice, by the hat (see above)). Note 48 on Suchet's list reads: 'Can't abide being or feeling untidy. A speck of dust is "as painful as a bullet wound".' This refers to the quote above, 'I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound'. It's a characteristic that will flourish both in later Poirot stories and in later Suchet adaptations.
It would be careless of me not to mention the limp, Poirot's war injury. This is one of only two characteristics (as far as I know) that Suchet hasn't included in his portrayal (the other is, of course, the green colour of his eyes). In a BBC Radio 4 interview in 2012, Suchet explained why this is the case: 'The only thing I've never externalised for Poirot is, in fact, in the original books, he has a limp, and it was a choice of my first producer in the series that I shouldn't limp, because if the series goes on too long, it may become a disadvantage! I actually wanted to, so that's the only aspect of Poirot I go on record for saying that I haven't actually achieved; to find his literal war wound.'
'As we drove through the village, I remembered that I wanted some stamps, so we pulled up at the post office. As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologised, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly. 'Mon ami Hastings!' he cried. 'It is indeed mon ami Hastings!' (p. 19)
'Suddenly clasping me in his arms, he kissed me warmly on both cheeks, and before I had recovered from my surprise ran headlong from the room.' (p. 149)A few months back, I was interviewed by Norwegian public radio, and one of the questions I was asked was 'When did Poirot become a 'hugger', someone who displays affection?'. The question was raised in response to Poirot's reunion with Japp in The Big Four. I replied that Poirot, both in the books and the television series, is no stranger to displaying affection, particularly towards people he cares about. Obviously, though, as Suchet points out in note 77, he 'rarely shows his emotions'. In the 2006 Poirot & Me documentary, Suchet referred to the first scene, and the meeting with Japp in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, as his favourite moments with Hugh Fraser and Philip Jackson.
'Yes, indeed,' said Poirot seriously. 'I know Mademoiselle Cynthia. It is by the charity of that good Mrs Inglethorp that I am here'. [...] 'Yes, my friend, she had kindly extended hospitality to seven of my country-people who, alas, are refugees from their native land. We Belgians will always remember her with gratitude.' (p. 20)
'I looked at the extraordinary little man, divided between annoyance and amusement. He was so tremendously sure of himself. As though he read my thoughts, he nodded gently. 'Oh yes, mon ami, I would do what I say.' He got up and laid his hand on my shoulder. His physiognomy underwent a complete change. Tears came into his eyes. 'In all this, you see, I think of the poor Mrs. Inglethorp who is dead. She was not extravagantly loved - no. But she was very good to us Belgians - I owe her a debt.' (p. 72)These two quotes refer to Poirot's background as a war refugee. This is rarely referenced in the series (I can only think of 'The Double Clue' and The Clocks), but it plays centre stage in the Styles adaptation.
'A window above me was cautiously opened, and Poirot himself looked out. He gave an exclamation of surprise at seeing me.' (p. 31)In Poirot and Me (2013), Suchet discusses to the way this particular scene was adapted for the screen: 'It is to my eternal regret that this is one occasion when I totally let down the man I had become so close to. In the film, I open the window and look out without brushing my hair before doing so. Now, Poirot, the man I knew and loved, would never, ever, have done that. He would have brushed his hair carefully, no matter how urgent the knocking on his front door. To this day, I regret that I didn't brush my hair before opening the window. Every time I see that scene, I feel I've let him down.' (p. 97). So this is a very obvious breach of his mantra - true to Agatha. However, this explanation should more than make up for it. The quote further underlines his attention to detail and care for the character.
'Poirot smiled kindly on me. 'The mind is confused? Is it not so? Take time, mon ami. You are agitated; you are excited - it is but natural. Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place. We will examine - and reject. Those of importance we will put on one side; those of no importance, pouf!' - he screwed up his cherub-like face, and puffed comically enough - 'blow them away!' (p. 32)
One fact leads to another - so we continue. Does the next fit in with that? A merveille! Good! We can proceed. This next little fact - no! Ah, that is curious! There is something missing - a link in the chain that is not there. We examine. We search. And that little curious fact, that possibly paltry little detail that will not tally, we put it here!' He made an extravagant gesture with his hand. 'It is significant! It is tremendous!' (p. 32)These two quotes illustrate Poirot's methodical approach to detective work. The first was even lifted straight from the page and onto the screen. Suchet's Poirot approaches every case in much the same way.
'He was carefully engaged in brushing his coat before putting it on, and seemed wholly engrossed in the task.' (...) He opened a drawer, and took out a small dispatch-case, then turned to me.' (p. 32)See Suchet's Note 72: 'Always brushes his coat before venturing outside. A clothes brush is nearby'. The dispatch-case was included in the adaptation, too. It was never used again, though Poirot did use a similar one in the adaptation of The Big Four, as he examined the chess board.
'Excuse me, mon ami, you dressed in haste, and your tie is on one side. Permit me.' (p. 32)
'He's such a dear little man! But he is funny. He made me take the brooch out of my tie the other day, and put it in again, because he said it wasn't straight' (Cynthia to Hastings, p. 124)See Suchet's Note 84: 'He often straightens Hastings' tie. He will remove a lady's brooch and replace it because it was put in crooked (M. Affair at Styles - Cynthia p. 130)'. See also Note 86: 'Cynthia from M. Affair at Styles says: 'He's such a dear little man! But he is funny.'. Both qualities would re-appear in later stories and adaptations.
'Poirot stopped for a moment, and gazed sorrowfully over the beautiful expanse of park, still glittering with morning dew. 'So beautiful, so beautiful, and yet, the poor family, plunged in sorrow, prostrated with grief.' (p. 33)This is a small glimpse of the darkness to the character, that would later be explored in more detail by Suchet.
'He rose from his knees, and walked slowly across to the mantelpiece, where he stood abstractedly fingering the ornaments, and straightening them - a trick of his when he was agitated.' (p. 37)
'Poirot had walked over to the mantelpiece. He was outwardly calm, but I noticed his hand, which from long force of habit were mechanically straightening the spill vases on the mantelpiece, were shaking violently.' (p. 64)Suchet's Note 31: 'A PASSION for tidiness and will always straighten objects if crooked or unsymmetrical.' Of course, as Hastings points out in the quote, this is particularly the case when he is agitated. Suchet's Poirot does it a lot, especially in the later episodes. Nearly every interview takes place in a drawing-room by a fire place so that he can straighten the objects!
'Finally, he poured a few drops of the cocoa into a test tube, sealing it up carefully. His next proceeding was to take out a little notebook. 'We have found in this room', he said, writing busily, 'six points of interest.' (p. 37)See Suchet's Note 30: 'Sometimes uses a pocket notebook'. Suchet uses a notebook in the episode.The test tube is an example of Poirot's more forensic approach in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In later years, he would declare his disdain for tangible evidence.
|From "The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly"|
'He had stepped outside the french window, and was standing, apparently lost in admiration, before the various shaped flower beds. 'Admirable!' he murmured. 'Admirable! What symmetry! Observe the crescent; and those diamonds - their neatness rejoices the eye. The spacing of the plants, also, is perfect.' (p. 40)See Suchet's Note 12: 'Likes neatness - can't tolerate a mess or anything disorderly'. Suchet's Poirot frequently refers to the symmetry of his surroundings.
'In her attitude towards Poirot, she was inclined to be suspicious, but he soon broke down her defences. He drew forward a chair. 'Pray be seated mademoiselle' [...] Poirot looked at her keenly. 'My good Dorcas, it is necessary that I should know every detail of that quarrel as fully as possible. Do not think you are betraying your mistress's secrets. Your mistress lies dead, and it is necessary that we should know it all - if we are to avenge her. Nothing can bring her back to life, but we do hope, if there has been foul play, to bring the murderer to justice. (p. 41)The quote above illustrates Note 61: 'Very good with servants and working classes. Never patronises them'. A similar scenario can be found in 'The Adventure of the Clapham Cook', both the story and the adaptation.
Poirot observed me with quietly twinkling eyes. 'You are not pleased with me, mon ami?' (p. 48)See Note 17: 'A great "Twinkler". Has very "twinkly eyes" (green!!)'. Suchet based his performance in the early series on this particular characteristic. His Poirot would be charismatic, friendly and likeable (despite of his other character traits). Other characteristics would become more important in later years, but Suchet's Poirot never lost his twinkle.
'Oh, lá lá! That miserable cocoa! cried Poirot flippantly. He laughed with apparent enjoyment, raising his arms to heaven in mock despair, in what I could not but consider the worst possible taste.' (p. 49-50)Again, Suchet's Note 77 serves as an illustration: 'Rarely shows his emotions and yet dislikes the English reserve. Sometimes though with his arms raised he will utter "Oh lá lá"!'. However, unless I am mistaken, Suchet never makes use of this particular exclamation in the television series. But certain exclamations of joy are evident in the series on momentous occasions (typically an 'ah!' followed by raised arms and a smile).
'Chut! no more now!' (p. 54)See Note 80 on Suchet's list: 'WIll utter "CHUT!" instead of "Ssh"' and Note 47: 'When dissatisfied, restless, frustrated or angry will make the sound of a cat sneezing "Tchat".' The former is not a particularly common occurrence in the series, but the latter can be observed in several of the books and adaptations.
'Tcha! Tcha! You argue like a child!' (p. 99)
'But what was it?' 'Ah!' cried Poirot, with a gesture of anger. 'That I do not know! [...] And 1' - his anger burst forth freely - 'miserable animal that I am! I guessed nothing! I have behaved like an imbecile! [...] Ah, triple pig!' (p. 64)Both in Styles and in later adaptations, this character trait would be displayed. Suchet explains in the 2006 documentary: 'Very often, both in the books and in our series, you see Poirot very nearly getting it wrong. I suppose it's one of the few times that you really see Poirot getting emotional. When he does get it wrong (...) he gets very angry with himself, and calls himself an idiot and an imbecile (...) which is something completely out of character, because he would never normally admit to this sort of thing. (...) Poirot does it, because that's his greatest crime to himself; getting it wrong.'
'As we walked briskly away from the house, I glanced at him more than once. I had often before noticed that, if anything excited him, his eyes turned green like a cat's. They were shining like emeralds now. 'My friend', he broke out at last, 'I have a little idea, a very strange, and probably utterly impossible idea. And yet - it fits in.' (p. 66)
I was opening my lips, when Poirot stopped me with a gesture of his hand. 'Not now, not now, mon ami. I have need of reflection. My mind is in some disorder - which is not well.' For about ten minutes he sat in dead silence, perfectly still, except for several expressive motions of his eyebrows, and all the time his eyes grew steadily greener. At last he heaved a deep sigh. 'It is well. The bad moment has passed. Now all is arranged and classified. One must never permit confusion. (p. 71)
'Still frowning, he went across to the desk and took out a small pack of patience cards. Then he drew up a chair to the table, and to my utter amazement, began solemnly to build card houses! My jaw dropped involuntarily, and he said at once: 'No, mon ami, I am not in my second childhood! I steady my nerves, that is all. This employment requires precision of the fingers. With precision of the fingers goes precision of the brain. And never have I needed that more than now! [...] I can build card houses seven storeys high, but I cannot' - thump - 'find' - thump - 'that last link of which I spoke to you' [...] It is done - so! By placing - one card - on another - with mathematical - precision!' I watched the car house rising under his hands, storey by storey. He never hesitated or faltered. It was really almost like a conjouring trick.' (p. 148)
'I stopped suddenly. For Poirot, uttering a hoarse and inarticulate cry, again annihilated his masterpiece of cards, and putting his hands over his eyes swayed backwards, and forwards, apparently suffering the keenest agony. [...] 'I have an idea' (p. 148-49)These quotes all need to be discussed together, because they concern Poirot's moment of revelation, the epiphany. It's a frequent occurrence, both in the series and in the stories. Suchet refers to it in Note 82, which is a direct quote of Hastings's description on p. 71); 'Four about ten minutes...'. Suchet also refers to the 'little ideas' in Note 83: 'He enjoys his "little ideas" - this became a catchword. Indeed it did, both on TV and in Christie's stories. The card house would reappear in later adaptations, see 'The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim', Three Act Tragedy.
|From "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest"|
'He offered me one of the tiny Russian cigarettes he himself occasionally smoked. I was amused to notice that he stowed away the used matches most carefully in a little china pot.' (p. 70)See Suchet's Note 38: 'Smokes tiny black Russian cigarettes from a cigarette case (silver)', and note 85: 'When he hasn't got his lighter, will light his small Russian cigarettes with a match stick which he will then place in a small pottery pot'. His smoking habit is particularly evident in later episodes. I can't remember seeing him use a china pot, though.
Mon dieu! (p. 86)See Note 76: 'Never or very rarely says "Mon Dieu!" But often will exclaim "Sacré", "Milles Tonnerres!". It's certainly true that the two latter exclamations are more common, but I'm fairly certain I've heard Suchet's Poirot exclaim mon dieu on more than one occasion (not to mention in the novels, as the above quote proves).
'Mesdames and messieurs,' said Poirot, bowing as though he were a celebrity about to deliver a lecture' (p. 93)This is a typical example of Poirot's 'moment of theatre', as Suchet calls it.
'Sometimes, I feel sure he is mad as a hatter; and then, just as he is at his maddest, I find there is method in his madness' (p. 125)See Suchet's Note 87, which is a direct quote of the above statement. Suchet's Poirot does seem to provoke this reaction in people, as he is often accused of having lost his mind or following the wrong track.
'The happiness of one man and a woman is the greatest thing in all the world' (Poirot to Hastings, p. 169)It seems fitting to end the first examination of Suchet's portrayal with this quote, because it reflects Poirot's appreciation and admiration for marriage and relationships, a character trait Suchet would explore further and broaden in the second half of the series. See Note 89: 'Genuinely believes that the happiness of one man and one woman is the greatest thing in all the world'.
Next time, I'll take a closer look at the first short stories!
- I'm a passionate fan of Poirot, Agatha Christie and the ITV series. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or requests, please e-mail me at email@example.com, post a comment on one of my blogs, or get in touch on Twitter @pchronology. (I used to call myself HickoryDickory)